Ian McEwan: “Hand on the Shoulder”

04/29/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 30, 2012.

Excerpt or no (from the upcoming Sweet Tooth), “Hand on the Shoulder” works rather well — as “Transatlantic” did a few weeks ago — in that it’s a self-contained, fully-developed, and above all else interesting event in the life of Serena Frome. I don’t consider wanting to know more a bad thing, so long as all of my questions about this particular moment of the story are answered, developed, or hinted at. And they are: if anything, McEwan over-shares, defining each moment in the young Serena’s maturing affair right down to the sort of exotic food her mentor/lover exposes her to: “I remember everything–the scrubbed pine table with dented legs of faded duck-egg blue, the wide faience bowl of slippery cepes, the disk of polenta beaming like a miniature sun from a pale-green plate with a cracked glaze, the dusty black bottle of wine, the peppery rugola in a chipped white bowl, and Tony making the dressing in seconds, tipping oil and squeezing half a lemon in his fist even, so it seemed, as he carried the salad to the table.” We already know that this period of her life left an impression her — after all, another tangent of full-bodied descriptions reveal that she’s narrating from far in her future, looking wistfully back at the thought of being still being fifty-four, let alone twenty-one: “The body’s largest organ, the skin, bears the brunt–it no longer fits the old. It hangs off them, off us, like a room-for-growth school blazer. Or pajamas. And in a certain light, though it may have been the bedroom curtains, Tony had a yellowish look, like an old paperback, in which you could read of various misfortunes–knee and appendicitis operations, a dog bite, a rock climbing accident, and a childhood disaster with a breakfast frying pan, which had left him bereft of a patch of pubic hair.” Mind you, this is interestingly written — how does a hot frying pan get anywhere near your crotch? — but they’re not the point of this story, nor, from what I can tell, of the longer novel, either.

No, this piece is about the old “hand on the shoulder” method of MI5 recruitment — unusually applied to a woman, though we’re seeing that this is, in part, because Tony is sleeping with Serena — in which an older mentor approaches a student and guides them toward a “different” department. It’s a method that works particularly well on Serena, for while she’s gorgeous, she — in that slightly stereotypical way — doesn’t realize it, and is the sort of person to take personal responsibility for the failings of others: her college boyfriend, Jeremy, who introduces her to his professor, Tony, is unable to orgasm — “I was troubled by the thought that I might be failing him” — only to learn, once he’s moved on, that he’s gay. So she’s drawn immediately both to Tony’s interest in her — “I was trying to please, to give the right answers, to be interesting” — and his own imperfections: the spots he misses while shaving and, oh, his unhappy marriage to an art dealer who frequently travels abroad. He’s a father figure, too, replacing her own strict one — referred to as the Bishop — with a rather gentler “hand on the shoulder.” (I’m assuming this would be more developed in the novel, but the echoes are unmistakable — and interesting — here. There are a few brief references to Serena’s sister, too, which work well in context as they provide these children with some contrast: Lucy, upon returning from her collegiate travels, is caught smuggling hashish. And is pregnant. Their mother insists on an abortion — not the one to let scandal leak out, particularly scandal that might affect her religious husband, though “the Bishop was prepared to bow his head and take whatever the heavens had prepared for him.”)

The novel will no doubt go further into Serena’s life post-recruitment — the beautiful woman, used to seduce the male spy, perhaps falling in love with him and having a conflict, as these dramas tend to play out — but the short story is perfectly limned by the build-up to her interview, ending with the collapse of her affair with Tony, in which she learns something vital about the workings of the human mind. You see, one weekend, Tony instructs Serena to leave her blouse for the maid to wash; that same weekend, his wife unexpectedly returns early and finds the blouse, having it out with her husband. Though it’s Tony’s fault, he genuinely pins the whole thing on Serena — who must have been attempting to break up their marriage so that she could move in — and casts himself as the victim of a homewrecker: he, for all intents and purposes, has erased the memory from his mind. Welcome to MI5, Serena; welcome to the adulthood; welcome to the realization that the “truth” is as relative as morality. Nicely done, McEwan.

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Junot Diaz: “Miss Lora”

04/19/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 23, 2012.

So yeah, this is Junot Diaz’s thing, no? Using second person, whether it’s warranted or not; dropping into Spanish, for flavor and to stand out (why am I remembering No One Talks to the Colonel?); talking about young boys (and often their brothers or friends who are like brothers) and the things they do for pussy; and calling the whole thing fiction, which it most assuredly is. He’ll even throw in a few five-dollar words (“fulgurating,” “untrammelled”) to show he’s serious, a move straight out of the T. C. Boyle handbook (or thesaurus). But beyond the immediate effect of his naked text — “Why is sex with me a mistake, you demanded, but she just pulled your hand out of her pants” — this particular story is either slight in of itself, or is just too similar to the rest of Diaz’s oeuvre. Not that he’s necessarily written about a sixteen-year-old muscleman falling into an affair with la professora, the titular Miss Lora, before. But given how lightly he explores that subject, has he really written about it now?

Here’s what you can expect: the coarse differences between his girlfriend Paloma and the wizened Miss Lora, the former intent on escaping the neighborhood, the other a fixture of it:

That night, you are allowed to touch Paloma’s clit with the tip of your tongue, but that’s it. She holds your head back with the force of her whole life, and eventually you give up, demoralized.

You know I work, right? I know, you say, but I dreamed that something happened to you. It’s sweet of you to lie, she sighs, and even though she is falling asleep she lets you bone her straight in the ass. Fucking amazing you keep saying for all four seconds it takes you to come. You have to pull my hair while you do it, she confides. That makes me shoot like a rocket.

Here’s what’s missing: anything truly revealing about “your” relationship with your brother or father, beyond the fact that they were also both sucios (and are both gone, the brother having died early on, the narrator positing that his “I’ll fuck anything” attitude perhaps being a reason for this whole Miss Lora relationship, when in fact he’s really just a horny boy who isn’t getting any from his girl). There’s an underutilized theme, too, in the 1985 setting: although You talk about Your terrible dreams of instant nuclear annihilation, it’s dropped fairly early from the story, and is never really tied to Miss Lora, who, despite a lengthy paragraph on her history, exists more as a fantasy than a real character — both a fierce sex object and a supportive college adviser, pushing him through the application process. She’s a wonderful and selfless person, no-strings-attached, not at all clingy, and that makes for a rather boring story. Diaz also chooses, perhaps wisely, to avoid traditional drama: it’s not until his senior year of college that he shares this Secret with his new mujeron, and although she — hoping to protect him, echoing the strong women he falls for, the ones who can perhaps save him from being like his brother, if that’s what this is all about — goes to confront Miss Lora, nobody answers the door.

Miss Lora comes across as a guardian-angel-with-benefits, as uninteresting as she is flat-chested  (“No breasts, no ass, even her hair failed to make the grade”); the main character is inactive and passive, too, an unfortunate side-effect of choosing the second person, in that Diaz makes the reader assume all the responsibility of action. And, as this ground’s been trodden by Diaz so often before, it’s hard to hear what — if anything — the author is even trying to communicate this time around. Happiness seems like a non-issue, so does morality, and while the final section hints that it all has to do with moving forward — Miss Lora being the one who truly turns him into an adult, in more ways than one — that doesn’t seem particularly attached to this specific story. One expects more from a Pulitzer Prize winner, no?

Colum McCann: “Transatlantic”

04/15/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 16, 2012.

It’s funny that I find myself so resistant to reading non-fiction, while at the same time lapping up historical fiction, i.e., an author’s fictional accounting of an actual event, in this case the first ever non-stop transatlantic flight of Alcock and Brown in 1919. (It helps, too, that I didn’t actually know for sure if they’d make it or not.) But reading McCann’s excellent prose helps to clarify why I have such strong feelings: a story, no matter how compelling, is only as strong as the actual telling of it, and too often, non-fiction tomes are weighted down by the necessity of facts, useless dates, unfleshed people, etc. Fiction allows enough leeway, even within the confines of what actually happened, to imagine something greater than the event: i.e., not the ramifications, but the immediate experience.

How does McCann manage this striking effect? Well, for one, he chooses to write in the present tense; secondly, he uses short, choppy sentences. If you want to go even further into it, yes, he’s got lists of facts, but he’s not using them simply for accuracy, but in a way in which his recitation mirrors the endless preparations and recitations of the two pilots, emphasizing just how much had to be in order, and how easily it would be for any one single thing to fall apart and bring them down. (An interesting, stakes-raising note: it comes out that neither character can swim, which means that even if they survive the crash, they’ll surely die in the ocean.) Moreover, McCann finds a chopping, pulsing, propeller-like rhythm even for raw data:

All the rivets, the split pins, and the stitches are checked. The pump control handles. The magnetos. The batteries to warm their electric suits. The shoes are polished and their flight suits are brushed. The Ferrostat flasks of hot tea and Oxo are prepared. The carefully cut sandwiches. Horlicks Malted Milk. Bars of Fry’s chocolate. Four sticks of licorice each. A bottle of brandy for emergencies.

He also provides the objects with context: “The sandwich is made delicious simply by where they are, and how far they have already come,” he observes at one point; at another, an attempt to scrape ice off the petrol-overflow gauge, “to guard against trouble with the carburetor,” we’re made to understand just h0w vital this tiny object is (as opposed to some of the other parts that have sheared off the plane so far).

Those are just objects, though; what really matter are the two characters, and McCann fills them up, too, with quick flashbacks to their experiences flying bombers or reconnaissance in the Great War, getting shot down and taken prisoner, and the somewhat listless feeling of returning home. “What they both wanted was a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment: raw, dynamic, warless.” It’s not clear how many liberties McCann has taken in ascribing feelings to these characters, but it’s a clear mark of storytelling skill that he draws such deft comparisons between the War and this Transatlantic crossing. Whereas bombers shattered the world, the reconfigured Vickers Vimy (a modified bomber) will bridge the world and piece it back together; the entire world is rooting for this particular plane to succeed (at least, according to the newsmen below). And yet, listen to the language: this “warless” moment comes through the “obliteration” of memory — something must always be destroyed in order to make peace; thankfully, in this case, it’s merely a record — or the meadow that they dynamite to pieces in order to create an adequate landing strip (“an intricate aerodrome”).

Finally, McCann knows how to build momentum, breaking between the thrilling tribulations of the pilots (the weather turns against them, clouds confuse everything) to interject moments of song (“The Maple Leaf Rag,” which was the last song they heard as they drifted off to sleep on the eve of their flight, presumably what keeps them sane as their ears are now shaken to bits by the rattling engine); to add the perspective of their favorite reporter, a newswoman named Elizabeth, who casts the event in grander terms (“The first human victory over the war, Elizabeth thinks, the triumph of endurance over memory”); and even to briefly flashback to Brown’s childhood, though this is perhaps the one piece of the story that’s unbalanced enough to justify cutting. (It’s an effective note on how “heroes” are just ordinary people in costumes, but it’s a bit untethered.)

Flight is a terrific subject — doesn’t it still seem like magic, from a distance? — and McCann embraces every aspect of it, capturing both the elegiac and the celebratory notes that the newsmen pre-write (not knowing yet what the outcome will be, failing to grasp that it can be both), and the meditative notion that the point of flight is “To get rid of oneself”; it is not a literal escapism to fly away, above it all? “Uplifting” indeed!

Roberto Bolano: “I Can’t Read” (Excerpt?)

04/14/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s Magazine, April 2012. (From the forthcoming collection, The Secret of Evil.)
(Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews.)

I won’t blame Mr. Bolano for this, seeing as he’s dead, and this was cobbled together posthumously, but seeing as this has been done to other prolific writers like Nabokov (unwillingly) and Wallace (willingly), this serves as a fine launching point for yet another screed against hack publishers/editors. Just because a person has been recognized as an author, that does not make all of their scribblings into a story. Even writers themselves sometimes seem to forget this, foisting rushed or cheap work to magazines that they know will be happy for it, unconcerned with the effect a few (or even many) misses will have against the overall body of their work. And yet, that doesn’t make it right, and what Harper’s has done is even worse: they’ve taken some sort of excerpt from some sort of collection from some sort of writing found on Bolano’s computer after his death in 2003, and they’ve passed it off as a story. Let’s get to and through it, shall we?

First off, stories tend to have a style, either narrative or aesthetic (or both). If this were more complete, one might be able to describe Bolano’s choice here as non-illusory and autobiographical, in that he telegraphs what he’s going to be doing. But in this context, it comes across as the gloss of an unfinished work; i.e., a broad stroke of what will occur, which the author intends to go back and fill in later. “This story is about four people,” it begins. “Two children, Lautaro and Pascual, a woman, Andrea, and another child, named Carlos. It’s also about Chile, and, in a way, about Latin America in general.” Okay, it’s not the most subtle of theses ever inserted into a work of fiction, but unless the narrator is Carlos, then the story is incomplete: he never appears. As for Andrea, she’s described as an invisible creature, Cheshire in nature, the partner of Pascual’s mother, Alexandra (who we learn much of, despite the insistence that she’s not a part of the story). One absent character, one forgettable character, and then there’s a lengthy anecdote about a trick the narrator’s son, Lautaro, learns, in which he can prevent those automatic doors in, say, grocery stores from opening when he approaches them. (“[A]s if this approach were being made not by a single body but by a shadow and two phantom shadows, and even his face was transformed; it seemed to blur but also to be concentrating on invisibility, on stasis and movement, on insubstantiality and paradox.”)

So maybe this is approaching a larger metaphor about Chile, to which the narrator has returned after an absence (itself a type of invisibility, of physical remove) of 24 years. And yet, because it’s unfinished, because it’s excerpted, it doesn’t work. It’s as if a magician had meant to install mirrors and smoke, but ran out of time, and so while you may understand what he intends the effect to be, you see only the blatant, ineffectual trick itself. Instead of sustaining this narrative, in which the author tells you what’s coming and then chooses not to reveal some of it (hinting again at what’s invisible), the story begins to cut between context-less memories, and the story is quickly undercut by moments that do not build the theme or advance the momentum. This is most notable in the two final sections — which ideally would be the climax and conclusion, but are instead a meaningless encounter with some sort of “strange and solitary bird . . . a raptor, a falcon or something like that,” and the author’s observation of his return to Chile the following year, at which point he’s attacked by his fellow authors (both on the left and right) as being a patero, or “a sycophant, a flatterer, a brownnose, an asslicker.” Is the point that he’s now seen, but incorrectly? Is that what life in Chile is like?

Bolano’s talented, and this scrap is readable, but it’s not satisfying, and it’s certainly not a story.

Brandon Sanderson: “The Alloy of Law”

04/09/2012 § Leave a comment

I’ll say this for the prolific Brandon Sanderson, who churned out this novel while completing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga and developing an entirely new series (The Stormlight Archive): here’s a man who isn’t afraid to experiment, and authors would do well to take note. Sure, there have been plenty of fantasy novels before that span a generation or two — Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s work within the Dragonlance universe, for example — but this is the first time I can recall an author exploring an entirely new era. Everybody you knew from the Mistborn trilogy is dead, and that medieval setting has given way to a steampunk world (there’s a city being filled with trains, electricity, and skyscrapers, but it’s surrounded by ramshackle ghost towns and outlaws). The scope’s been reduced, as well; our hero this time around, Waxillium Ladrian, isn’t battling immortal emperors or discovering new metallurgical powers (this universe is established on allomantic theories; metals are burned internally or channeled externally to enhance or store physical/mental/spiritual properties). Instead, he’s simply embroiled in a detective story, what with his noble house being robbed and his social-climbing fiancee being kidnapped by a group of high-end thieves known as the Vanishers. What follows is closer to the loose, witty charms of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files — Wax’s rough, wise-cracking ex-thief friend Wayne even wears a duster — than the epic world-building present in even his other one-offs (WarbreakerElantris), but every writer needs to let off steam. (Pun intended.)

And it’s not as if The Alloy of Law doesn’t have legs: it’s a quick read, sure, but it’s a lot of fun, and easily sets the stage for a sequel. At the same time, however, this is due largely to the shorthand Sanderson uses for some of his scenes, which robs us of some of the emotional development we’d normally get. In the prologue, Wax accidentally shoots his wife after she’s taken hostage by a too-clever serial killer; it’s effective in explaining Wax’s decision to give up his rogue, lawman ways, and the trauma helps to lightly handicap Wax’s masterful gun-slinging — but brief as these events are, they carry no real weight. Lessie, we hardly knew ye, and the same can be said for his refined fiancee-of-convenience, Steris, and her scholarly, adventuresome half-sister Marasi. Too often, Marasi is used to push the same buttons — sexual tension, academic exposition — and she ends up coming across a stereotype of the sexy-nerd female characters this genre knows only too well. (In a film, she’d be played by Felicia Day.) None of this is bad; it’s just comparatively shallow against the body of Sanderson’s other work: it’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as opposed to Raiders of the Lost Ark, if you will. (But better, obviously, than the unspeakable Crystal Skull.)

The action sequences work, and they’re jazzed up a bit from the slightly worn sequences from the Mistborn series by the addition of guns. Coinshots now use bullet casings to allomantically “push” against, and the twinborn Wax can also increase or decrease his weight to the point at which he can crush a building by pushing from high above it or to where he can float through the air by firing a shotgun and allowing the recoil to move him. Late in the novel, there’s also the introduction of “hazekiller” rounds, which are special armaments made by a fiery gunsmith named Ranette, designed to kill specific types of allomancers. Wayne’s melee combat, on the other hand, is an amusing bit of trickster showmanship: he can drop speed-bubbles, around which the world is slowed down, making him faster than, say, a ninja. Beyond these powers, though, and the gold-infused immortality of their rival, a former lawman named Miles Hundredlives, The Alloy of Law fails to fully explore the ramifications of its magic. (Wouldn’t a Chromium bullet kill Miles in a single shot, draining him of his powers as it penetrated his skull?) Talk of alloys beyond the sixteen “known” metals (and the two “god” metals that featured in The Hero of Ages) spices things up a bit, and yet the novel still falls into some magical repetition, leaving it to the set-pieces (the ever-popular battle atop a speeding train) to be inventive.

The Alloy of Law doesn’t exactly cheat its readers, but it leaves them hungry for much, much more. Here’s hoping Sanderson takes his molten pen back to the forge really soon.

Victor Lodato: “P.E.”

04/06/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 2, 2012.

The ending’s a little shaky, but if you’ve been looking for a crash course on momentum and narrative, look no further than Lodato’s striking short story, “P.E.” Freddy’s a twenty-eight-year old who has been suffering from severe emotional trauma, trauma that in recent years has caused him to balloon in size and to awkwardly withdraw to the comfort of alternate realities, or the teachings of Parallel Energetics (P.E.), in which you “tune in to what it feels like to be [these yous that have worked out a lot of their shit], and sustain that higher frequency for as long as possible.” We get this sense of Freddy right off the bat, as he sits in an airport kiosk, downing slices of pumpkin loaf, waiting for his father — who he hasn’t seen in over two years, and who he hasn’t lived with since his mother’s killed herself when he was seven — to arrive. He attempts to joke with the barista: “I didn’t actually laugh. I just said the words ‘ha ha.’ I’m like that. I pretend I have a sense of humor, but I don’t.” Then he realizes what she’s really upset about: “We stared at each other, fat person to fat person, and it was pretty real, but not in any way pleasant.” Nobody likes to really see themselves, and yet that’s the main thrust of P.E., i.e., seeing the wound through the father, reconciling with the past rather than looking sidelong into a fictitious “now.”

Did I mention that Lodato’s very funny in describing this, which helps to mask just how much emotional baggage Freddy’s got? From a narrative perspective, we buy into the things Freddy tells us because if he was lying, why would he be so self-deprecating? “We stepped toward each other, but we didn’t do anything with our arms or our hands. We just stood there, which was fine. It’s awkward when people try to hug me. And then, if I reciprocate, I tend to engulf. Too much of me touches the other person. I feel like a pervy mall Santa endangering a child.” (Suffice to say, the story ends with the father embracing — to an extent — the son, as they dance, stoned, in his apartment.) We’re also given a sprinkling of interesting facts, things which insist upon the specific reality of Freddy’s world, which further helps to obfuscate what Freddy isn’t telling us: “I gathered from his comment that he was still in the habit of stealing things,” he mentions of his father; “Aunt Helen is a gentle woman, but her wisdom often erupts like a kind of Tourette’s syndrome,” he says of the person who more or less raised him. Even the hints that Freddy isn’t quite being clear — he interrupts himself, doubles-back on certain events, skates around raw memories — are masked by their own casual nature: “For instance, the day my mother died, my father and I were at the beach. I was seven. My mother wasn’t at the beach, she was at home, with the rope and everything.”

“If I seem full of anger, it’s just my style. It’s not my subject,” insists Freddy. This isn’t true, though; after barely kettling his emotions at a cheap Mexican restaurant, the two head back to Freddy’s apartment, where Freddy ends up having to share his stash of artisanal weed with him. (It’s supplied, incidentally, by his P.E. mentor.) The father shares a memory, but  the son can remember only his father’s infidelities, the mother’s resultant depression, and the eventual consequences to said actions. “Had my father been cavorting with some other Freddy?” he wonders. “I had the strange feeling I’d been replaced.” What follows is a bit akin to the opening sequence of Infinite Jest: Freddy’s first-person perspective is entirely different, we realize, from his father’s. He is living in a parallel world, or hiding within one, for you see, the father has come not to mooch off the son, but because Aunt Helen, too weak from her hip surgery to come herself, was concerned that he was having another of his “episodes.” This is the first we hear of this, and there’s been plenty of time to bring it up, given that Freddy is all too aware of his father’s own trip to the “nut-and-bolt factory” when he was a child. (“Either that or she’d say he was straightening his stockings. I took these things literally, commingled them in my head, and pictured a transvestite version of my father working an assembly line.” I told you he was funny.)

We’re also seeing the narrative jumble at this point, too. When Freddy first describes his charming father, the man’s missing a tooth, but it’s actually not until now — when Freddy hits him in the face with his cell-phone — that he loses the tooth. It’s not until now that we see the relevance of the story Freddy shares about how, after the suicide, the father kept the rope and wore it around the house. (“Part of it was probably guilt and part of it was wanting to wear something that was hers. A sweatshirt would have been less upsetting to a seven-year-old, but, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure he was fully conscious of the fact that I was still there.”) For you see, the son still has the noose around his own neck, eking out a miserable life in a desert house infested by lizards, delusional about his own relationship with his mentor/boyfriend (“I”m not gay,” he insists, and yet: “Take a deep breath, baby, Salvatore likes to say…”), and trapped in a body that — all joking aside — has more or less consumed the person he once was. It’s a beautiful, fractious final sequence, and if I say up front that it’s a little shaky, it’s only because it’s so different — near elegiac — than everything that precedes it. They’re so naked at this point — the father crying at the picture of his dead wife — that they might as well go skinny dipping, and we’ve come full circle to that water metaphor, the thing that’s inextricably linked to the memory of his dead mother, “I was probably swimming at the exact moment that it happened…. The sea of infinite possibility and everything.” It’s on this final note — the mark of a good author, to have echoed everything without being any means definitive — that Lodato ends his story, one liquid to another: “Sal says that every change of consciousness is accompanied by a loss of fluid.” Possibilities, realities, transference, memory; if we are composed mainly of water, then are we not constantly liquid, i.e, changeable? Nice concept, beautiful images, terrific follow-through, perfectly executed narrative momentum: great.

Jonathan Lethem: “The Porn Critic”

04/05/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 9, 2012.

Here’s a plot I’ve not read before (though thanks to Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, I’ve had my brush with lit-porn), and really, that makes all the difference. Lethem knows how to distort a neighborhood (just look at Chronic City), filtering it through comics or music (The Fortress of Solitude) so as to make it both unrecognizable and familiar, and it’s fun to see what he’s done with Kromer, a sexually inexperienced adult who, due to his job and his friends, has developed a reputation as a “saint of degeneracy” among his comparatively tame friends. And while this is novel enough, Lethem pushes himself to find the perfect descriptors, opening the story with this: “Kromer couldn’t operate hedonism but these days it operated him, in the way that a punctuated cylinder operates a piano player.” That’s the sort of line that makes you stop and think, and hey, it’s actually got something to do with the story, already serving up its main character as a wounded (i.e., punctured) man, as an amusement, a device, for others. And that’s the real reason Lethem’s subject matter goes over so smoothly; he doesn’t obsess over the descriptions of “chunky purple phalluses, vials of space-age lubricant, silver balls and beads for insertion, latex dolphins with oscillating beaks.” Or rather, he does, but it’s in the service of better describing Kromer in relation to his work; he’s a “wizard salesman” who pitches with “shame-dissolving forthrightness,” and we’re learning of this only because Kromer is contemplating the various reasons that the girl of his dreams, “Beautiful Renee,” might have to dismiss him.

Something else that’s nice about lit-porn, light as this is, is that it frees up the writer to get a little crazy. Kromer, with the help of his adventurous former schoolmate, Greta, who is determined to “die squalorously before she became wealthy,” manages to coax Renee and her buddy, Luna, back to his apartment for a nice big bag of communal weed, forgetting for a moment about the layout of his apartment. For you see, he’s not just the salesman at Sex Machines, he’s also the resident critic, and his apartment is “a maze of stacked porn. The volume was staggering. The disarranged piles melded into a wallpaper of ludicrous font and slashes of pink, brown, and yellow flesh; though the job was chiefly a matter of inventorying characteristics, tabulating spurts and lashings, Kromer couldn’t get through the tapes fast enough.” It hardly matters that this is all porn, not really; it’s the orderly disarray that speaks to his character. And because Lethem has a way with characters, he’s able to josh around, comparing the setting to being within “Guernica,” or perhaps a work from Francis Bacon or Bosch. And as things worsen for our man Kromer, Lethem grows more playful, providing a drug-fueled contrast to the discomfort the pure Renee is having:

“You could just brick up the windows,” Luna mused. “It’s like a gothic nightmare, what’s it called–‘The Prisoner of the Rue Morgue’?”
“By Edgar Allan Porn!” Greta shrieked.
Renee jolted from her chair a second time, now veering to the room’s shrinking center, avoiding the looming shelves. She pitched, bent double, attempting a vomity dash for Kromer’s bathroom.

I really hope I’m not the only person who finds this whole nightmarish situation to be hilarious.

In any case, Lethem isn’t exactly writing a comedy here, funny as it is, and once Renee’s run off, once Luna’s been outed as a lesbian who nonetheless goes ahead and shares a foggy three-way with Kromer (who, in this relationship, is once again the conduit — that punctuated cylinder), you have the man left alone with his good friend, Greta. She, in a horny daze (“I want a dick in me now”), begins to unbutton his pants, and as Kromer bargains with her — getting her all-hours man-servant to bring them breakfast from Barney Greengrass — he questions whether what he’s doing is a prostitution of sorts. (“I fucked for sturgeon,” he thinks.) No, concludes Lethem and Kromer: this is an “innocent” man, absent pleasure, absent real profit, absent a real soul. He is the man who watches porn; worse, he is the man who reviews porn. Even when he participates, he remains once removed, taking notes. And despite the unusual circumstances of this story, one realizes, this is something we’ve all probably had some experience with. And just like that, Lethem’s got you.

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